In a game in which one team beats the other with such authority, it's hard to come up with a turning point; wags amongst us might sarcastically suggest it was the opening kickoff. But, in a game wherein Dallas steamed to a 7-0 lead after a potent opening drive, yet lost by 17, there had to be a clear moment when the switch was flipped, no? I believe there was, and I'll start with that...
:40: The amount of time the Cowboys ran off clock during their final second half drive. Trailing 17-14 after the defense stiffened and held Chicago to a field goal, Dallas took possession with 1:27 on the clock and two timeouts. A nifty pass to Dez Bryant earned another first down, but he fell on the ball and had the wind knocked out of him. The injury, by rule, cost the team a timeout, stopping the clock at the 1:13 mark. A Jason Witten drop and consecutive incompletions on passes intended for DeMarco Murray and Terrance Williams (the latter a floater that almost resulted in an interception) and the Cowboys punt burned a mere 26 seconds.
Thanks to Devin Hester's 19-yard return, the Bears set up at their own 40 with 47 second left to play...and you know what happened a few pays later: Alshon Jeffery's spectacular end zone heel-tapper gave the Bears a sudden and stunning ten-point lead.
Perhaps more importantly, the potential fourteen-point swing removed the Cowboys ground attack from the gameplan. Up to that point, Dallas had run the ball as well as they had all season. Up to that fateful turning point, the Cowboys had run 23 plays. Thirteen of those were runs by Murray, for an impressive 99 yards. When the Cowboys took over for their final possession of the first half, however, it was a two-minute situation, which effectively negated the chance of another grinding, Murray-centric drive.
The Bears took a ten-point lead and, after receiving the second half kickoff, drove for another score, a Robbie Gould field goal, to make it 27-14. At that point, Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan continued to go to the run; the Cowboys' subsequent three-and-out featured carries by Joseph Randle and Murray and, on third down, an incompletion. When Dallas next saw the ball, it was 35-14, and their most effective option no longer seemed so.
0: The number of Bears punts on the night. The lasst time Chicago didn't have a single punt in a game? Try more than forty years: October, 1972. And the Bears had no turnovers or other drive stoppers. No, they just kept driving and scoring. Here are the results of the Bears' eight drives on Monday night (a ninth was a one-play kneel down at the end of the game):
And the Cowboys didn't really come close to stopping them. Chicago was 8-11 on third down, with the three failed conversions coming in field goal range. In other words, with eight opportunities to stop a drive, the Cowboys went O-fer. And they weren't all easy, short-yardage jobs; the Bears converted third downs of 8, 9, 10, 10, 12, and 14 yards.
33: The number of Bears' first downs. That marked the third time this season Dallas has surrendered 30 or more first downs (a figure that could be worse; they yielded 27 to the Chargers and 29 to the Lions). Coming in to the season, the Cowboys had given up 30 or more first down a total of seven times in their history - and most of those number among the most embarrassing losses in our collective memory (the 50-34 loss at Cincy in 1985; the 1996 season-ender, a 40-15 loss to the Redskins to close out RFK stadium; the 31-7 beatdown at Philly in 2011).
Think about it: giving up 30 or more first downs means that your defense is getting beat with stunning consistency. In the 814 games in the franchise history, this has happened only on ten occasions. And three of them have happened this season. Thus it should not surprise that...
9: The numbers of Bears players who made a run or a catch of ten or more yards. That's not nine plays of ten or more yards; it's the number of players who had plays of 10+ yards. On the night, Chicago netted 23 double-digit plays. Those plays went for 361 of the Bears' 498 yards.
2: The number of sacks DeMarcus Ware has had since Week three. Both happened to come in nationally televised blowouts - the first one on a second quarter Saints drive that resulted in the New Orleans touchdown that made the score 21-10; the other came last night in garbage time, on the Bears final drive. It, too, ended in a score, the Robbie Gould field goal that closed out Chicago's scoring.
Here's the real point: The narrative of this season has been the inability of an injury-depleted defensive line to generate pressure. The Cowboys pass rush has vanished, and I believe that a strong case can be made that Ware is responsible for the dropoff. The prevailing narrative is that, with fellows like Anthony Spencer out for the duration, opposing offensive lines can rotate their protections to Ware's side. But if you watch film of recent games, you'll see him being handled - often easily - by rival left tackles.
Since week four in San Diego, when Ware re-aggravated the stinger that has bothered him since he was carted off the field against the same Chargers in 2009, number 94 has not had a meaningful sack. In the many tight games the team has played in weeks five through fourteen (five of those have been decided by a touchdown or less), the kind of games that can be turned by defensive pressure on a crucial third down, he has not been a factor.
Let's take a closer look. After three weeks, the Cowboys had thirteen sacks, and were averaging 4.25 per game. Ware went down in week four; in the ten games since then (including the San Diego game), they have managed only one more than they had in the first three (for the mathematically challenged among you, that's 14 sacks, or 1.4 per game). And in six of those games, they have one or fewer QB bags. After Monday night, Dallas is 29th in the league with 26 sacks (by comparison, the league leader, Buffalo, has 44).
I think it might be time to re-think the narrative: due to Ware's injury, which allows him to be handled easily even by middling left tackles, teams can rotate protection to Selvie's side. Perhaps the league has caught up to players like George Selvie and Nick Hayden. But notice that Selvie's sack total correlates with Ware's health. Selvie has six sacks on the season; three came in games 1-4, before Ware's injury. Since then, he has been shut out seven times and rarely makes the "splash" plays that so surprised and pleased us early in the year.
50,000,000/ 6: The various resources spent by the Cowboys franchise on CBs in the 2012 offseason. After the 2011 campaign, the team decided that the late-season collapse was due largely to the declining play of its corners, specifically Terrence Newman. In response, they jumped into the deep ends of the free agency and draft-day pools to nab prizes in FA Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne, who reportedly received the highest draft grade given a collegiate CB since Deion Sanders.
Since these moves were made, however, the Cowboys defense has been stricken with terrible rashes of injuries. As a consequence, it's hard to judge whether or not - and, if so, to what degree - the franchise's big 2012 CB investment can be declared a success or a failure. As former CB Isaac Holt used to say about the nondescript corners on those great late 80s-early 90s Eagles defenses: "how long they gotta cover?"
What he meant by this was that it didn't matter much who played corner; as long as headhunters like Jerome Brown, Reggie White and Clyde Simmons manned the D-line, Philly's corners didn't have to cover for more than a split second. Similarly, might Carr, Claiborne and Scandrick be a solid to very good group if the D-line was sending waves of similarly fearsome rushers at opposing signal callers?
In short: which is more important for an effective pass defense: great pass rush or great coverage? Sadly, the season-long decimation of what I believe to be the sport's second-most important position group (after QB) means that we'll have to wait at least one more year for a clear answer. From this vantage point, however, it looks like the pass rush is key; the team is simply asking its corners to cover for too long. And as a result, a huge chunk of its personnel investment is yielding little to no dividend.
6: Number of games in the 2013 season the Cowboys have given up 490 or more yards. No other NFL team has two such games in 2013. In addition, the Cowboys surrendered 478 to the Giants in week one, have yielded 400 passing yards on four occasions, and have twice given up 200 yards on the ground. No matter which way you slice it, this patient is critical, and the specialist is on the golf course, out of cell phone range.
And the startling part of this is that, in blowout losses to New Orleans and Chicago, the opposition has called off the dogs, allowing the Dallas "D" to avoid more ignominious records. Otherwise, Drew Brees would certainly have surpassed 400 yards passing (he finished with 392) and the Bears would have topped the 500-yard total yardage mark (they ended the night two yards short).
9.7: Josh McCown's yards per passing attempt (YPA). In these post-game "by the numbers" pieces, I have repeatedly noted the Cowboys disparate defensive performance versus the pass. Perhaps a quick review is in order; here are the YPAs of the various quarterbacks the Cowboys have faces in 2013:
Week 2: Alex Smith: 5.5
Week 4: Phillip Rivers: 9.4
Week 6: RGIII: 5.6
/ : 4.0
Week 8: Matt Stafford: 10.0
Week 9: : 6.1
Week 10: : 9.6
Week 12: Eli redux; 5.1
Week 13: Matt McGloin: 8.5
Week 14: Josh McCown: 9.7
Through the season's first twelve weeks, the pattern was fairly clear: when the Cowboys faced a top-ten caliber quarterback, they surrendered in excess of nine yards per pass, a staggeringly high total (no surprise, therefore, that they are 2-5 when giving up 8.5 or more yards per pass) Against mediocre or downright bad QBs, however, they tended to play pretty well, limiting them to YPAs of 6.5 or lower. And the import of low YPA is reflected in their won-loss record; the Cowboys are 5-1 in <6.5 YPA games.
These numbers make what has happened in the past two contests particularly disconcerting. Nobody in the NFL would consider either Matt McGloin or Josh McCown a top quarterback; indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find an NFL GM who would see either one as anything other than a stop-gap. But in consecutive weeks, the Cowboys pass defense has given up 8.5 and 9.7 yards per pass to career backup types.
These are precisely the kind of journeymen the Cowboys defense had limited to reasonable YPA totals for the bulk of the season - and, as a result, tended to beat. If the Dallas defense is going to be torched not only by the Riverses, Breeses and Mannings of the world, but also by the league's fringe signal callers, then it's hard to imagine that the team's defensive players are capable of playing well enough to win - or that its braintrust is able to develop a scheme capable of helping them mask their many athletic limitations.
It looks, therefore, like any playoff push the team will generate will have to come from their offense. There, the numbers are slightly more promising. In particular...
109: Romo's passer rating. With the defense looking increasingly like what we'd see in the fourth quarter of a preseason game, it's going to be on the offense to win the necessary remaining games for the Cowboys to get into the playoffs. And if any game has demonstrated the uselessness of rushing yardage as a correlative to winning, it was Monday's affair: Dallas had their highest rushing total since last year's ground game explosion at Baltimore, yet lost by 17 points.
If the opposition is going to throw the ball seemingly at will, it's up to Romo and the passing game to respond in kind. The offensive braintrust is going to have to throw caution to the wind and open up the gameplan a bit by calling more intermediate and deep throws, the kind that travel more than twelve yards in the air.
The good news is that Romo has continued to play the most efficient football of his career. If ever he was capable of taking the best aspects of the "bus driver" and "gunslinger" quarterback profiles, it's now.
And we need it, Tony. We need it bad.